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Friday, Aug. 31, 2012

Diet passes Osaka merger plan; Hashimoto must sell it

Bid to gut ranks of the legislature, bureaucracies also no done deal

OSAKA — Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, achieving a major political goal, welcomed the Diet's passage Wednesday of legislation to merge the Osaka prefectural and municipal governments.

News photo
Mergers and acquisitions: Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto speaks to reporters at City Hall on Thursday. KYODO

Now talk is turning toward the increasingly influential national role Hashimoto and his Osaka Ishin no Kai (One Osaka) local group will play in the next Lower House election, with the popular mayor announcing specific numerical goals for a slimmed-down Diet.

"It took a long time, but finally the Diet passed the merger legislation. However, we're just standing at the entrance and more work needs to be done," Hashimoto said Thursday.

The Diet's approval of the Osaka merger plan paves the way for turning the entire prefecture into one governmental entity, the same as Tokyo, with wards that have a great deal of autonomy. However, there is a long way to go to actually achieve this. The exact ward structure has to be decided and agreed on by local governments.

The plan then has to be put to a local referendum, which Hashimoto hopes to have held by early 2015. This has led to speculation about whether he and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui, who serves as secretary general of Osaka ishin no Kai, would remain in their posts until then or quit and run in the next Lower House election, which must be held no later than next summer.

Hashimoto and Matsui have both previously denied they will run for the Diet. they repeated that assertion following Wednesday's passage of the merger bill.

"To get the Osaka merger approved by referendum, we first have to present a convincing case, and we want to work to get a mandate," Matsui said Wednesday.

In the meantime, Hashimoto's plans for a national party were accelerating Thursday. A party platform is expected to be ready by around mid-September, but Hashimoto said earlier this week he wants to include a pledge to halve the number of Lower House seats from the current 480 to 240. At his regular press briefing Thursday, he offered more details.

"The problem with the current Diet structure is that electoral districts are too small, so Diet members spend a lot of time attending local festivals like Bon dances. That's the kind of thing that should be done by local politicians so Diet members can think about national issues.

"My idea is to expand the electoral districts, and reduce the number of direct representatives to 150, about one representative for every 1 million people, and the number of proportional representatives to 90," Hashimoto said.

While he did not provide a figure, Hashimoto added he wants to see a corresponding reduction in the central government bureaucracy. This, he said, could then lead to realization of a semi-autonomous regional system to replace the 47 prefectures, which have been in existence since 1888.

Hashimoto's announcement that he wants to halve the Lower House has created shock waves among many Diet members, who argue that the plan would lead to increased control by the central bureaucrats because there would be fewer politicians to keep them in check.

Hashimoto said Thursday it is important to keep the roles of the bureaucracy and elected representatives separate, and that it isn't a question of numbers of politicians and bureaucrats as much as clearly defined roles and responsibilities between the bureaucrats and the politicians.

With Wednesday's passage, talks between Diet members who share Hashimoto's views about some form of cooperation are expected to accelerate. Osaka Ishin no Kai officials say they have approached ultraconservative members of the Liberal Democratic Party, including former Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa, about some sort of tieup that would lead to Hashimoto's group becoming a bona fide political party.

Nakagawa says such talks have been unofficial. As of Thursday, between 15 and 30 Diet members have expressed serious interest in either joining the new party or a coalition, Osaka Ishin no Kai officials said. That number will likely rise in the coming days, especially after a Sept. 9 public discussion in Osaka involving Hashimoto, Matsui and invited Diet members.

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The Japan Times

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